We are now heading back Southwards to catch a free music festival in April in the Alentejo. We routed through the Serra de Estrela mountains, first stopping at Folgoshino. Our walk from here took us through steeply terraced hills up to an old Roman road. This was lined by wildflowers and interspersed with streams that course down into the valleys. The top of the hill was quite a contrast, very rocky and often dotted with blackened trees. The sound of cuckoos follow us wherever we go now. Spring has sprung!
Our second stop in the Serra de Estrela was Mantegias, a very pretty town in the Rio Zezere valley. We were hoping to do a walk from here to Poco do Inferno but couldn’t find the starting point so we drove up and walked from the picnic point. The waterfalls are beautiful with green coloured pools and the hills have stunning views into the valleys. We stayed over at Mantegias next to the river and slept like babies lulled to sleep by the sound of the waterfall.
We followed the Duoro river inland, this massive water course is surrounded by steeply, terraced hills full of vines. It was once the main route for the boats carrying barrels of wine from the fertile valleys of the Duoro down to Porto where they would age and eventually become port.
We stopped by Cinfaes, right on the waters edge surrounded by sweet smelling wisteria and under a weeping willow. We had sundowners at the local hotel overlooking the river and on our way home stopped at the local ‘shop’. This turned out to be a little old lady’s front room where she sells some bits and bobs. Our wine container was a water bottle filled with the local vintage. Our perfect day was topped off with the sighting of an otter at sundown, clambering in and out of the jetties a few metres away from the van.
The river has some great walking opportunities and the next day we followed a path along it for a few hours. This was a revelation as we experienced some extraordinary acoustics along its course. At one house a radio was playing, this was amplified and distorted for miles down the river until you could hardly make out the songs being played. The route also provided us with refreshments from the many orange trees and freshwater springs, nature providing at its best!
Next stop Porto. We had been warned by friends that this city was rather industrial and our expectations about its aesthetics were low. However, we thoroughly enjoyed our short time here. The weather helped as it was hot and sunny throughout. Even the Portuguese managed to stripped off and bask in the sun.
We stayed near Villa Nova de Gaia, by the beach and cycled into the city for our sightseeing. This has been the easiest city to visit on our bikes as a dedicated cycle path runs along the seafront and riverside into town. The path along the Duoro river passes all the famous port lodges. There were many names we recognised and a few we haven’t seen before. From this side of the river there is also a lovely view of the main town and its diverse architecture. We also enjoyed the view on a boat trip that took us out to the sea and back again. We finished our first day with a glass of port at Kopke lodge, Porto’s oldest, overlooking the river.
Day two saw us return for more port (of course). We visited Crofts and Calem for tastings, our favourite being Calems vintage tawny blend but at a hefty €21.40 we had to pass up buying a bottle. We took a tour at Sandemans, famous for its cape and sombrero advertising. All in all a good day of drinking rounded up by cocktails by the beach at sunset! And a hangover the next day … anyway I don’t feel too guilty on a Saturday morning (its a reminder of a previous life!)
We detoured through the Serra da Freita on our way to Arouca. The landscape in this area is almost English, very green and full of tumbled down stone cottages surrounded by gardens packed with flowers. There is an abundance of water and rock, creating white waterfalls and idyllic roadside stops. At one such place we got out to explore and encountered a rather hunched up crone guarding her goats. I hadn’t noticed her crouching away from the blistering sunshine until she unfurled her black shawl to tend to her charges. She was wrapped in black from head to foot, whilst I was wandering around in shorts and a strappy top. This seems to be the norm here, the Portuguese are wrapped up like its -10° and most women seem to wear black (perhaps to trap in the heat?)
Arouca was bustling compared to the quietness of the Serra da Freita. We wandered around the town and then stopped for lunch in a cafe frequented by the locals. David ordered a Franceshina (translates to “a little French”), that turned out to be not so little. This massive meal consists of a door stop sandwich, containing pork steak, bacon and sausage, covered in grilled cheese floating in a soup of chips, tomato, beer and piripiri. It was a dream meal for David although he struggled to finish it and we opted for a healthy carrot soup for supper to try and balance out our diet.
We drove up into the hills surrounding Caramulo and found an idyllic spot at Cabeca da Neve. We decided to stop here for the night, much to our detriment as it was frequented by locals through the course of the night blasting cheesy rave music. At 4am we had enough and blotted out their crap tunes with our drum ‘n bass turned up to the max. This started a soundsystem war and we didn’t get any more sleep. We will remember in future not to stop anywhere with views of lights on a Saturday night. Our lack of sleep put paid to our walk along the hills the next morning and instead we stopped for pastries at Caramulo and drove on to Vouzela.
Vouzela’s campsite was on a hill, next to a Castelo and a very steep 2km downhill into town. We cycled it and dreaded the all uphill return journey. Vouzela itself is a pretty backwater town, it has a famous pastry which tastes like very eggy custard combined with mounds and mounds of icing sugar encased in filo pastry masquerading as paper. Not my best pastry experience! And it definitely didn’t help with the cycle ride back home … less sugar rush, more like jelly legs!
Luso is the home of Portugal’s famous mineral water. It was a pleasure to go and fill up our water bottles for free at the town’s fountain. In fact, the fountain provided us with much entertainment over our lunch. There is an endless stream (haha) of people that come to fill up and we counted them with up to 10 big water bottles each. They must be very thirsty!
The campsite in Luso is set amongst the pine trees and dotted with daisies, it was very quiet and peaceful. From the site it is a short walk (up a very steep hill) into the Bucaco forest. This walled forest was planted by monks and there is a tree dating from 1644. The paths meander past ponds full of rose petals and up to the Palacio do Bucaco, now a hotel. The hotel is ornate, in a manueline style with some beautiful azulejos on the exterior walls.
We walked up to the Porta de Coimbra and also to what we thought was the Cruz Alta, but we discovered that we must have stopped climbing before reaching the summit and the topmost cross! Ah well, both had panoramic views of the countryside.
This region is famous for its leitao, a roast suckling pig which is usually eaten accompanied by a local sparkling red wine. We tried both, and stuffed ourselves silly with such a decadent meal. I had to leave the driving to David as I had rather overindulged my appetite for wine at lunch and had to have a little lie down.
Coimbra stunned us with architecture and culture. The city is hilly, like so many in Portugal, but this gives it great views. We marched about exploring the winding staircases meandering from the university down into the commercial part of the city and then onto the river. We had lunch and I got to try a local speciality, Chafana – goat stewed in red wine. It was very rich but tender and tasty.
That evening we ventured back into town for some fado (the Portuguese equivalent of the blues) and had our first taxi ride with a Portuguese driver. It was more hair raising than driving with an Italian as he managed to clock up 110 in a 50 zone! The fado wasn’t neearly so quick. We had to wait an hour for it to start - apparently my strop eventually got it going. It was interesting and I enjoyed the guitar but I wouldn’t listen to it regularly as it is rather moody for my tastes. One guitarist was most enthusiastic, strumming like his fingers were on fire, but the other looked like he wanted nothing more than to get back to his fishing boat …
The grandeur of the church in Alcoba is lovely, and far more to my taste than the tacky buildings in Fatima. The unadorned, towering columns create a sense of religious simplicity. It is here that Dom Pedro lies, in a lavishly decorated tomb, along with his wife Ines de Castro who was murdered by Dom Pedro’s father. The gruesome story of these lovers ended when Dom Pedro had the royal court kiss the mummified hand of his former bride, after she had been exhumed.
We made an unplanned stop in Fatima, Portugal’s most famous pilgrimage site. There is an aire next to the sanctuary and it gave us a chance to see the huge esplanade (twice the size of St Marks Sq) and the abstract religious art that decorates it. However the religious architecture seems somehow rushed, concentrated more on size than style. A massive cathedral, constructed somewhat like an enormous version childrens building blocks, is decorated variously with strange statues. Dave was so unimpressed after seeing magnificent religious architecture along our travels that he didn’t even bother to take any photos, apart from a couple of shots of the fountains nearby.
Just down the road from Fatima is an incredible palaeontology find. In 1994 an amateur discovered footprints dating back to 165 million years belonging to a breed of dinosaurs, the sauropods. The footprints were a little hard to decipher as we were battling against wind and rain. But they are huge and give some indication of the size of these magnificent creatures.
Sintra, in the hills above Lisbon, is full of fairytale architecture and was once a retreat for wealthy Lisbonites. The pastel coloured palaces and chimneys revealed themselves through the mist and cloud. Apparently this is normal weather for Sintra and is affectionately known as the ‘queen’s fart’. We explored the boulder strewn hills near the Palicio da Pena. There are steep inclines and declines creating some great mountain biking routes with fabulous views down into Lisbon and the coast.
Whilst in Sintra we went to visit the ‘Quinta de Regaleria‘, the vision of a wealthy aristocrat and a visionary architect and set designer. Each element of the house and garden is based on classical themes and the design extended to every element including each piece of furniture. It must have been an overwhelming project; it certainly overwhelmed us and we only had to walk around it! It was a contrast to the Convento dos Capuchos, a monastery with magnificent gardens but rather stark monk cells covered in cork bark.
We also stayed over at Cascais and enjoyed the beach at Guincho – a popular hangout for surfers and for Odie, a massive doggie population! The sun beat down on us during our cycle along the coastal path along with hundreds of other walkers, cyclists and roller bladers. Summer is on its way!